While there may have been surprises at the Academy Awards ceremony on February 26th (And the Best Picture is…), for fans of Feature Animation the victory of Zootopia was a given. All five nominees were worthy of the honor, but Zootopia was favored leading up to the night of the awards.

The stage of the Goldwyn Theater

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences holds a series of presentations in the week preceding the Academy Award ceremony. “Oscar Week” is an opportunity for the creators of the nominated content to gather and discuss their work free of the pressure from press agents, reporters, and studio expectations. On Thursday, February 23rd this event was held for the nominated films in the Animated Features category.

Hosts for the evening were director Pete Docter and producer Jonas Rivera, winners in 2016 for their Pixar feature Inside Out. Bill Kroyer, of the Short Films and Feature Animation branch of the AMPAS Board of Governors, delivered the welcome on behalf of the Academy.

Kroyer began by posing a question: What is an animated film? The Jungle Book? Avatar? Princess Leia? After a show of hands, he explained that for the purposes of nominations, an Animated Feature was a film over 40 minutes in length in which the leading character is hand crafted frame by frame. “It’s crazy what’s happening in animation,” he stated. He mentioned a 1911 short film in which dead crickets were affixed to wire armatures and animated frame by frame. After chuckling over that, he pointed out that stop-motion was still going strong, with two features using that technique under consideration this year.

 

He mentioned that it was “the fairest of them all,” Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that was the whole reason the crowd had gathered that night. And that, yes, there was a hand-drawn feature in contention. He went on to say that two leading figures in animation, Ron and John, who would be on the stage that night. “Basically saved the genre with The Little Mermaid.” He noted that like many one-named celebrities, It’s just Ron and John. His proof? He asked anyone who knew the last names of “Ron and John” to raise their hands. As the hands went up, he took a photo for proof that Ron Clements and John Musker were just that well known. And they were there with one of the two animated features produced in CG.

Following his welcome, Kroyer introduced Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera. As they took the stage, Rivera quipped, “How many here think the 1967 Jungle Book was animated?” They went on to explain that this had been one of their favorite events leading up to last year’s Oscars, as there was no more campaigning, the votes were in, and everyone could finally talk freely and tell the truth. They promised to try and not ask the same questions that had been answered over and over again. Riverarecalled his least favorite, “What does a producer do,” adding that his even mother had even asked him.

The first film up (they were in alphabetical order by title) was Kubo and the Two Strings. A clip was played, and then director Travis Knight and producer Ariana Sutner took the stage. Docter immediately noted how much they loved this subtle stop-motion animated feature. The first question for director Knight was how his work on Coraline and The Box Trolls had prepared him for Kubo and the Two Strings.

Knight stated that it was the variety of tasks on his previous films that had been most helpful. He had animated, worked on the story, developed each project and even produced. Despite all this preparation, he noted (with mock dismay) that directing a film was really, really hard. His highest praise was reserved for the crew. He said their hard work inspired him to do the best that he could do.

The inspiration for Kubo and the Two Strings came from his parents. He said that while she was in the hospital giving birth to nim, his mother was reading Lord of the Rings — so fantasy was in his DNA. His father, on the other hand, gave him a very different gift. A businessman who often traveled, Knight’s father took him on a memorable trip to Asia when he was a youngster. In Kubo and the Two Strings are combined the love of fantasy he got from his mother and love of Japan he got from his father.

Rivera and Docter talk with Travis Knight and Ariana Sutner of “Kubo and the Two Strings”

Producer Araiana Sutner was asked about the difficulties of making Kubo and the Two Strings. She said that so much in the project was antithetical to the stop-motion process: characters were often up off the ground, there were scenes set on the water, there were extended action sequences, and some characters were covered entirely with fur. In addition to all the spectacle, there was also a great many intimate scenes in Kubo and the Two Strings. Sutner felt the production team was equal to all that the script called for. She said that it was incredible to shoot a feature film one frame at a time. Knight stated, “It’s all trickery.” It takes the skill and imagination of the animators to make it spring to life, and complete an emotional connection with the audience. He said that after 20 years, he still couldn’t believe it. Sutner concluded that she was really proud of the emotional restraint in the animation, that it made the film subtle and more life-like.

Docter pointed out that stop-motion was the most tactile animation art, yet one that today pushed the limits of technology. He asked if the limits of technology dictated the direction of the story of Kubo and the Two Strings. Knight was emphatic that the story was always the first consideration. Only later would they wonder, “Oh my God, how are we going to do this?” He again lauded his animators for taking a 100-yesr-old technology to make a cutting edge film that was visually and aesthetically unique.

When asked how much of the film was created on set, as opposed to on pre-planning storyboards, Knight said that the storyboard artists created it all. It was small team, and they worked fairly quickly, moving sequences straight from the board to the screen. Sutner added that they did sometimes use some rather low technology techniques to test ideas, such as foam core cut out shot with lipstick cameras. Docter marveled, “So we’re not the only ones who do that!”

Jonas asked fellow producer Sutner how long it had taken to produce the film. She said that it had taken 23 months, although they had originally hoped it would take (“fingers crossed”) 18 months. According to director Knight, on a good week of shooting they would produce two minutes of the film.

One specific character stood out in Pete Docter’s mind, and he had to ask about it. A massive skeleton makes an appearance, and in the credits it is revealed that it was built larger than life. Why was this? Knight’s prompt reply: “It’s awesome!” He then went on to talk about the influence of Ray Harryhausen, and in particular the skeleton sequence from Jason and the Argonauts. The skeleton in Kubo and the Two Strings was a tip of the hat to this giant of the genre. In the end it made sense to build it over 16 feet tall — although it dwarfed the animator and could not be traditionally rigged. There was a real possibility that it would topple, crushing the animator. That would have been, Knight noted dryly, not only a likely violation of OSHA, but would almost certainly have put them behind schedule.

As the interview wrapped up, Knight and Sutner were asked to cite a part of the film of which they were most proud. Sutner replied that it was like asking her to choose which of her children was her favorite (Knight claimed she did have a favorite, she had told him which it was, but that he would not reveal it on the live stream.) Sutner went on to say she was most proud of the work the crew had done on the action sequences. And the quiet moments. And the characters. She finally said it was all of it. Knight said that he, too, was quite proud of the big action sequences, but that the character moments were what truly resonated with the audiences, and that was what he was most proud of.

Noting the interview was about to end, Knight asked Rivera, “What DOES a producer do?” After some laughter from the crowd, Rivera revealed that he had one more question, from his five-year-old son. He had shown him the film, then asked what he would want to know. The question was, “Where does Kubo get the magical banjo?” Knight’s incredulous response was, “Banjo?!?” Sutner said if he called her, she would tell him. But Knight explained: The “banjo” was actually a gift from his mother. She and her sisters each had a weapon, but the banjo was the only weapon that could also be used to create. Sutner evenly concluded, that it was a gift he got from his mother.

The panel for “Moana”

The next film to be discussed was Moana. Sharing the panel were directors Ron Clements and John Musker, with producer Osnat Shurer. Docter got right down to business, mischievously asking if they had done the film simply for the three-week research trip through the South Pacific. Clements rose to the question, saying that the trip had defined the film. Originally it was intended to focus on the legends surrounding the demi-god Maui, but ended up being about the ocean and navigation in Polynesian culture. The production team learned so much in their travels, and from the many people they met along the way. When asked if they had also acquired any tattoos, they admitted that at least one member of the crew had gotten one.

Osnat stated that one valuable decision they made based on the trip was to cast the film with performers from the Islands, or with Island backgrounds. The lone exception was Alan Tudyk, who voiced Hei Hei the rooster. Among their discoveries was Aluli’i Cravalho, who played Moana. She was 14 when they cast the role, and turned 16 just before the film opened. Another performer they mentioned was Rachel House, playing the grandmother.

Pete Docter prefaced his next question by mentioning a couple of classic Disney films, The Jungle Book and Peter Pan. As he did, Clements and Musker raised mock objections, pointing out that they were not old enough to have worked on films of that vintage. “Steamboat Willie,” on the other hand… Docter gamely proceeded, asking if they had shot reference footage for the animators, as was the case in many Disney classics. Clements said that while they had done so on previous films, this was not the case with Moana. They did shoot footage of specific choreography, and some animators did shoot short digital video for their own use. When Docter asked if footage of the voice actors had been shot, the answer was yes. In fact, Moana is often seen in the film with her hair tied back because performer Auli’i Cravalho tied back her hair during the sessions.

Docter then turned to a question about characters, saying he is always curious where they come from and how they evolve. Maui was a case in point. Clements gave credit to Story head David Pimentel, who poured a lot of passion into the demi-god. In fact, he said, they performed a traditional Samoan Haka before story sessions, and Pimental would channel great Haka masters. Shurer also credited Dwayne Johnson for his contributions to the character. The half Samoan Johnson, she said, looks like a demi-god and has some great tattoos.

Clements continued by saying that Maui was a flawed narcissist, a tough character to crack. In the Pan-Pacific he is viewed in different ways, which gave them some leeway. But it was Johnson’s performance that ultimately made him a likeable figure. Musker added that mini-Maui, animated by veteran Eric Goldberg was another important factor in making Maui accessible.

Music is an important part of island culture, and songs were an important part of Moana. Musker recalled that the first night of their trip they were treated to hymns at sundown. During the trip they met and contracted noted performer Opetaia Foa’i. Lin-Manuel Miranda was hired on the basis of his work on Broadway’s In the Heights, a cross-cultural musical that was popular with audiences. Miranda was working on another show, a rap musical about the Founding Fathers called Hamilton. Osnat chuckled that they were sure it would take up only a few months of his time, and then he would be able to turn full attention to this project. They often ended up working via Skype with Miranda, in his Broadway dressing room in full costume and eating Chinese take-out. One bonus: the talented cast of Hamilton performed the song demos. Integrating those songs into the film was credited to the third member of the music team, Mark Mancina.

Ron Clements and John Musker

Producer Jonas couldn’t wait to ask Shurer about the differences in producing at Pixar versus Disney. Osnat reacted with a mock, “Hey!” She went on to say that both studios share a love of animation, the leadership of John Lasseter, and great people. She did add that Pixar, unlike Disney, had fog.

Director Docter asked Musker and Clements what differences they faced dealing with their first CG (as opposed to hand drawn) feature film. They replied that story development was the same, voice recording sessions were the same, but that many aspects of the production process were different. They acknowledged the help of Osnat in making their way through that process.

Too soon it was time to end the interview, but first a bonus question from Rivera’s five-year-old son. “How does Maui walk on the lava monster when he’s made of lava? You’re not supposed to touch lava!” This was a bit of a stumper, but the directors finally decided that he should be told. “It’s a cartoon.”

“My Life as a Zucchini”

The third nominee was My Life as a Zucchini, from France. Docter and Jonas apologized that they would not be able to interview the film’ director Claude Barris and his production team, as they were in France for the Cesar Awards (they won). After viewing a clip, Jonas and Docter shared their reactions. Rivera said it hit him harder than he had thought it would. It was simple, but deep. Docter agreed, pointing out that there was no reliance on traditional elements like animals or magic. The film, which is set in the world of contemporary kids, reminded them in some ways of Peanuts.

Based on an autobiography, the recording sessions for My Life as a Zucchini were recorded in an unconventional way. All the kids in the cast were assembled, and then talked their way through the story in sequential order, complete with props. While they were sorry that the creative team was not present, Rivera said they were honored to present the film. The bonus question from his son was actually in the form of an observation: “I like zucchini!” Rivera wryly noted that his son’s comment was less about the film, and more about taunting his sister, who hates zucchini. As they got into a fight, it worked.

Rivera and Docter talk with Toshio Suzuki of “The Red Turtle,” and translator

The next film was The Red Turtle. Director Michael Dudok de Wit was also in France for the Cesar Awards (he did not win). After viewing a clip from the Studio Ghibli co-production, producer Toshio Suzuki took the stage. As the well-known producer greeted Docter and Rivera, they mentioned what a great honor it was to host him. They revealed that when Suzuki had hosted them at Studio Ghibli, he had offered them cigarettes, and not wanting to turn down his hospitality they took them, and for the only time in their life smoked. (To be cool, they said, adding that kids should not smoke.)

The Red Turtle is the first outside co-production for Studio Ghibli, leading to the question of how this had come about. Suzuki recalled that he had first contacted de Wit in 2006 and suggested he might make a feature film. After seeing his 2008 short film “Father and Daughter” he again urged deWit to make a feature. De Wit agreed — but only if Studio Ghibli was involved.

Docter noted that the filmmaker had stated that he had come up with the idea for The Red Turtle in one day. Was this true, he asked Suzuki, noting that de Wit was not present to contradict him. Suzuki replied that he was hoping that de Wit would expand on “Father and Daughter,” which was a story of one woman’s life. The Red Turtle, on the other hand, is a story of one man’s life.

The process for creating The Red Turtle was far from ordinary. De Wit is based in London and Studio Ghibli is in Tokyo. After communication via email and phone, and sending storyboard samples back and forth, it was finally suggested that de Wit come to Japan. There, they spent a month in discussions, working on the screenplay and the storyboards. It took much longer than that to finish them, but Suzuki noted that having seen Father and Daughter, he was certain it would be a lengthy process.

This was, he said, quite a different process from the great Studio Ghibli films of the past. At Studio Ghibli they would tell the story directly from storyboards. De Wit, on the other hand, wanted to test each shot and confirm it. Rather than prioritize the script, he would prioritize the drawings. Further complicating things, Suzuki noted, was that de Wit hired animators from all over Europe, then fired them all, preferring to do the work himself.

Docter then asked a question that was likely on everybody’s minds—one that did not deal with The Red Turtle. What, he asked, was Suzuki doing next. The veteran producer giggled, then looked thoughtfully up at the ceiling. He chose his words carefully (even though he was speaking through a translator). It was, he recalled, three-and-a-half years since Hayao Miyazaki had announced his retirement. At that news conference where this was announced Suzuki said he was so happy and relieved that he would be able to start to live his own life. But, he went on, it didn’t take one year for Miyazaki to want to get back to work.

As the audience became more intrigued, Suzuki explained that this was actually related to The Red Turtle. Miyazaki knew he was working on it. He would watch the dailies. He was concerned about the details. And he didn’t really like the fact that someone else was making a Studio Ghibli film. As the audience held their breath, he went on to say he would give them one more piece of information. On July 1st of 2016, Miyazaki brought him a planning document for a new feature film. They would produce storyboards for 20 minutes of this film, show them to Suzuki and see if it was worth producing. This was completed at the end of the year. After looking at the storyboard, Suzuki said he thought very hard about it.

Toshio Suzuki, producer of “The Red Turtle”

There was a long pause. It was, he said, a really interesting story. But if he told Miyazaki this, it would go into production, and that would be the end of his retirement. But he knew he had to tell the truth, face to face. Which he did. And so, they are working hard on a new project.

After the excitement of the announcement died down, the discussion briefly returned to The Red Turtle. When asked if the beauty of the film had exceeded expectations, Suzuki said that it had exceeded them considerably.

Rivera finished with the bonus question from his son. He began, “Does the turtle stand for the relationship between mankind and nature in his…” As his voice trailed off, he admitted that this was not what his five-year-old had asked. It was, rather, “How did the turtle get red?” Suzuki explained that he was actually concerned about why the turtle was red. He had asked de Wit about this many times, and he could never understand his answers. What he finally understood, Suzuki explained, was that that the man in the film was the director himself, and the turtle was his wife.

The panel for “Zootopia”

The final nominated film was Zootopia. Docter and Rivera warmly greeted directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore and producer Clark Spencer as they made their way to the stage. The first subject at hand was where the idea for Zootopia originated. There were, said director Howard, six ideas presented to John Lasseter. He recalled a couple he particularly liked. Pug the Bounty Hunter told the adventures of a dog in space. The Island of Dr. Meow featured a six-foot-tall cat who had developed a savage serum. Of the six ideas, Lasseter was attracted to the ones with talking animals. Disney had no made a talking animal picture since Robin Hood. He suggested that make one that was not like anything seen before.

The idea started out as a spy movie. The first act was set in a city filled with animals, and it eventually dawned on them that this was something unique. The spy movie became a police procedural film, and the story began falling into place. When Docter asked if every idea was fully developed, Howard said no. Disney, he explained did not have a Brain Trust like Pixar. They had only a Story Trust.

One early idea that was developed for the story was the relationship between predator and prey. The ratio of 10% predator and 90% prey suggested the idea of bias against minorities. A police duo with a predator/prey relationship was a good vehicle for this. As the story developed Bob Iger became interested, and along with Lasseter realized that an animated film could examine big themes like prejudice, in the guise of a 21st-century fable. Zootopia could make a real statement about the world today.

The panel agreed, however, that audiences would not enjoy a film that talked down to them. They like to be entertained, but left with something to think about. What really cracked it open was the decision to make Judy Hopps a flawed character. Her hidden prejudice against prey animals came to light after arriving in Zootopia. It would not have served the story well to have her magically cure racism.

The conversation turned to the process of creating Zootopia. Producer Spencer said that he loved the story, but really loved the world. He was particularly attracted to the fact that all the animals in Zootopia were in true scale, each with a district to accommodate their unique needs. The crew made sure that each animal was also drawn from reality, with the proper skeletal frames, muscles, and fur. Howard recalled working on the movie Bolt, and the difficulties of animating a single scene where Bolt put his head out the window of a moving car to let the wind blow through his fur. In Zootopia there were over 1,800 animated shots of fur in motion.

The city itself was the next subject explored. What, asked the moderators, was the secret to making it so believable. The answer was a “German guy” named Matthias Lechner. A year-and-a-half was spent in research of how cities grow and develop. Zootopia was founded around a watering hole where animals had to share a safe space to survive. A fountain at the city center commemorated this. Each district grew outward from that common center, and each interacted with the others. According to the filmmakers, it could actually be built. And Lasseter was excited about it—especially if there was a train.

Byron Howard and Rich Moore, co-directors of “Zootopia”

Producer Rivera was curious about the casting process, calling the cast amazing. Spencer volunteered that Jason Bateman and Ginnifer Goodwin were early choices. Bateman, he said, was cheeky and smart-alecky, but charming. In person, he was as nice as could be, and surprisingly a big Disney fan. “Will this be like The Princess and the Frog?,” he asked. With Goodwin, Spencer continued, “We like to cast to type.” Animation, he explained already created a mask, so they preferred that actors use their own voice and bring their own personalities to the performance. Idris Elba brought an unexpectedly playful quality to Police Chief Bogo.

Animating the characters was also a process of discovery. Early tests involved finding a balance between each character’s animal and human qualities. Judy Hopps, for example, originally walked up on her toes, but it looked too unsettling. Although she was later made more human, they still retained a startled quality that harkened to the animal qualities at her core.

When asked if present events had informed the story of Zootopia, the filmmakers said not really. A scene set around the water hole, later cut, did address certain contemporary issues, but in the end it was the city itself that dictated the direction of the film. While the message had always been important, the subject of bias was a matter of timing—not just overt bias but subtle racism. Moore concluded that he thought he knew about bias going into the film, but learned he really did not.

Rivera delivered the final bonus question of the night. His son’s question was, “You know that mean fox guy (Gideon Grey) — how does Judy get the tickets back from him?” The filmmakers admitted that the crew had asked the same thing, and even they were not certain how she magically got the tickets back. They thought that it was unlikely that anyone would notice — but Jonas Rivera’s son did! Perhaps, they suggested, he should host next year.

 
 

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